A tribute to the good professor who fed so many
Stephen Ndegwa
Students present flowers in front of the statue of Professor Yuan Longping at the Experimental Junior High School in Nanjing, May 24, 2021. /Getty

Students present flowers in front of the statue of Professor Yuan Longping at the Experimental Junior High School in Nanjing, May 24, 2021. /Getty

Editor's note: Stephen Ndegwa is a Nairobi-based communication expert, scholar and lecturer at the United States International University-Africa, author and international affairs columnist. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

China and rice are synonymous. For many students overseas, rice is usually the entry point when learning the geography of the third largest, and most populous country in the world. It usually answers the question of how such a large number of people are fed sufficiently, while smaller and more agriculturally endowed countries suffer from perennial hunger.

But the history of rice growing in China and by extension many parts of the world cannot be written without the mention of the late "Father of Hybrid Rice," Professor Yuan Longping, who passed away on May 22 aged 91 years old in Hunan Province. The outpouring of grief in China after Prof Yuan's demise was huge, something news reports indicated is usually a preserve of political heavyweights in the country.

The Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Qu Dongyu, the first Chinese national in that position captured the essence of the moment in a tweet, "Deeply saddened by the death of Prof Yuan Longping, my dear master. He devoted his life to the research of hybrid rice, helping billions achieve food security."

So, what did Prof Yuan do to deserve such rare accolades? Yuan is known for developing the first hybrid rice strain in the 1970s and is regarded as a national hero for boosting grain harvests and helping to feed China's huge population.

The developing world, particularly Africa, will forever be grateful to Yuan for the work he did under his China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center. In Madagascar, for instance, Yuan's work helped increase the output of rice from three tons to 10 tons per hectare. In Mozambique, yields of three rice varieties developed by Yuan have shown great promise and offer much hope that they will help fighting hunger in the country.

In October 2004, Yuan shared the $250,000 prestigious World Food Prize with Sierra Leonean plant scientist Dr. Monty Jones for his work in developing "the world's first successful and widely grown high-yielding hybrid rice varieties in his native China in the 1970s." This shows the extent of inspiration Yuan has had on his peers, as Monty was honored "for his breakthrough work in developing the New Rice for Africa, a drought-resistant, high-yielding, protein-rich type of rice."

Yuan's work has also been of tremendous social and economic benefits in Pakistan, Brazil and India where rice is a staple food and a major source of income both at domestic and international levels. The tremendous increase in rice yields arising from the member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) has obviously been instrumental in the fight against poverty in many countries, as well as enhancing the nutrition of vast populations.

Chinese farmers work at hybrid rice planting field in Changsha city, Hunan province of China, June 20, 2006. /Getty

Chinese farmers work at hybrid rice planting field in Changsha city, Hunan province of China, June 20, 2006. /Getty

Yuan's lifelong pursuit in researching high-yield rice varieties shows that one man can change the world for the better. His selflessness and non-publicity approach show that he was not doing it for personal credit but for the benefit of humanity. While people outside the agricultural scientific world may not have known him as an individual when he was alive, he has now become a global icon in the face of the fight against global hunger and even poverty.

He is credited for undertaking what seemed an impossible task in the early stages of his research – maybe not so much because his peers thought it was scientifically futile, but they saw it as a thankless job with little financial reward from such an endeavor. Moreover, Western scientists were unable to grasp the impact of Yuan's research work on the world's poor by underestimating the massive value of high rice yields. 

Yuan contributed to achieving food security globally. Helping to feed China, which has almost one-fifth of the world's population, is a feat comparable to the country's contribution to eradicating extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, China's economic growth has accounted for more than three-quarters of global poverty reduction and a big factor behind achieving the United Nations millennium development goal of dividing extreme poverty by two.

Yuan's legacy should not be wasted or abused by those who will take on the mantle from the scientist. The pursuit of alleviating the suffering of the world's poor in any field is nobler than seeking commercial fortunes. The scientist has set the bar higher than the profit motive many Western biotechnology companies have been accused of following in their research on genetically modified foods.   

Yuan is an inspiration to hundreds of young scientists not just in agriculture, but in all fields where such genius in human endeavor is necessary. For example, at a time like this when some countries are engaging in COVID-19 vaccine nationalism, China's promise of making its own vaccine a public good is a reflection of Yuan's philosophical approach. While the temptation to capitalize on people's misery can be overwhelming, Yuan has shown that there is a higher calling.

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